Sunday, December 28, 2003

Whither Osama

Like a bad penny, stories of the whereabouts of our arch-enemy, Osama bin laden, keep circulating anew. Recently Monsoor Ijaz, a usually reliable observer of the scene, claimed to have information that OBL is a guest of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. Now the Financial Times has run a story saying the same thing.

Personally, I believe that OBL has been dead for two years, but, there DOES seem to be some coherence to the sightings, i.e. in a small area on either side of the Afghanistan border, either in the Tribal trust Lands on the border with Pakistan, or along the border with Iran. I've been there, and there is no great structural edifice delineating this border. The Durrand line, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, was constructed by the British Empire, and in no way respects the reality of the people living on that ground. Colonel Durrand was concerned merely with the military defensiblity of the line, not cultural congruence. The border with Iran, on the other hand, has been firm for less than fifty years, and was decided by people living far from the border area. Much of the border is a trackless waste, with no landmarks for miles, or even a tree. On either border, the tribe or family which controls the land on one side of the line usually controls the land on the other.

You must understand the religious-historical background of the region as well: Muslims attacked and subjugated these areas over a millennium ago, and as a result the local population became Muslims, and pretty devout Muslims at that. In many ways, Osama bin Laden represents the bloodline of Mohammad to many of these people. Thus he enjoys the status of almost a demigod among some Muslims there, and he has exploited this history to make himself into something of a cult leader, especially among the Pashtuns, who could be expected to protect him - or to conspire to convince others that he is still alive. Those who don't know very much about it may make too much of the enmity between the Shia and the Sunni. The relationship is a lot more complicated than a mere feud.

We may never know what happened to Osama. If he is dead, his legend will go on forever. If he is alive, however, we can expect to see him, sooner rather than later. If he has made a deal with the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, he has bound up his future in Iranian politics. One thing is for sure, though: if he IS alive, he won't be for long. Living on the run in that part of the world, with a twenty five million dollar price on your head, is not congruent with long life.